Friday, 2 August 2013

Mosques and the Community

There are many ways in which a masjid can interact with the community and undertake social action, without needing to spend much in the way of time, money or human resources. This post tries to highlight some of these and make some comments based on BFTF's experience as a volunteer.

1) Introduction
2) How much should a masjid spend on social capital?
3) Avoid abdication of responsibility
4) Avoid "not asking the question"
5) The Imam and the Friday Khutbah are key
6) Volunteers are precious
7) Leverage Wider Society
8) Co-operate with other Muslim orgs
9) You can do more than one thing at a time
10) Opportunity costs and framing
11) Start Building Capacity NOW!
12) Can you be the source of a positive story?
13) Six problems and partial solutions
14) Back to those examples...
15) Update : An email

BFTF has been involved in a couple of discussions recently relating to the ways in which mosques can engage with the community, where "community" can mean any or all of the following :

i) Muslim teenagers and young adults
ii) The local Muslim community as a whole
iii) The local non-Muslim community
iv) The local community both Muslim and non-Muslim

One of the purposes of starting the BFTF blog was to provide concrete example of simple actions that a miosque could do to engage with the community, with a particualar focus on those actions that had an element of "common ground" with the wider society and/or where the Muslim community leadership was failing to practice what it preached.

And BFTF is heartened to see that, by the grace of God, this has worked out pretty well and it is now possible to pull out a bunch of posts to provide exactly the kind of practical examples that BFTF wanted to highlight.

A number of examples of these can be found at the foot of this email where the responses BFTF gave to some questions that a Muslim org was asking its members and friends.

But first, it is perhaps worth covering a number of other points relating to engagement by masajid and what can go wrong.

How much should a masjid spend on social capital?
All masajid have a budget to spend on building and activities, the question that they should, perhaps, ask, is how much of this budget should they spend on the social capacity of the community - i.e. how much on buildings and how much on people?

5%, 10%, 40%....1% ?

Whatever that number is, perhaps the masjid should ring-fence that amount of money and use it to train (really train, not send on "courses") and support volunteers, undertake social action activities and on engagement with the local non-muslim community.

Avoid abdication of responsibility
There can be a tendency for senior masjid staff to adopt an attitude of "yes, it would be great if you formed a community engagement group , it is something that is badly needed. But don't expect us to change the way we behave in the slightest or to practically help you in your work".

This kind of attitude is, in BFTF's view, unacceptable and represents an abdication of the responsibility that senior staff have to lead and support engagement efforts. Most damagingly, this kind of effort can leave volunteers trying to encourage the community to adopt a particular practice rooted in Islamic teaching (say, buy free-range eggs rather than those from caged hens) without any support from senior staff, and sometimes with senior staff doing the exact opposite!

Imams and mosque committees have a great deal of power, authority and responsiility. They can have a profoundly positive effect when they support (by actions and words) a particular course of action. When they choose, and it is a choice, not to support volunteers, that are actively harming the chances of success - often at the same time as they are wringing their hands saying that they need people to help solve the communities problems!

Avoid "not asking the question"
Perhaps the most frustrating obstacle to improving the strength of Muslim civil society that BFTF has come across is organisations who recognise a problem, recognise which organisation is key to solving the problem, may even hold events regarding the problem...but refuse to actually engage or challenge the key organisation directly, often giving excuses along the lines of :

"They won't listen to us"
"They aren't ready for this kind of change"
"I don't think they will give a positive response"
"We talked to them before, but nothing came of it"
"They don't like Muslims"
"They are the ones causing the problem - it's pointless talking to them"

Firstly, we are all lucky that The Black Civil Rights Movement, the people of the Arab Spring, William Wilerforce, AVAAZ, 38Degrees and Himmah did not take this view, or the civil rights and civil society victories they achieved would never have happened.

Secondly, failing to challenge organisations means that, at best, they are unaware of what they are doing wrong or, at worst, are fully aware of what they are doing and can now say "Well, it can't be that big a problem, no one has complained to us".

Thirdly, and in the context of talking to masjid committees etc, fear of rejection should not be an obstacle to asking for committees to support an action. If they reject a simple, low cost, beneficial proposal, and provide reasons, fine. So be it. Send another proposal, on a different subject after a couple of weeks. If they reject that too, fine. So be it. Send another proposal after a further two weeks on a third subject. . . eventually, inshallah, the committee will realise that they are digging themselves a very big hole and start to support their volunteers suggestions properly.

The Imam and the Friday Khutbah are key
Islam is blessed with a built-in "newswire service" in the form of the Friday congregational prayers where, as well as the sermon, the Imam can pass on important items of community news.

The community, rightly, puts great weight on what the Imam says, and public support by the Imam for community engagement actions is a powerful means of persuading the congregation that this is something they should support too.

It is particularly effective if and Imam practically supports an action (e.g. by sending an email to protest against civilian airstike deaths, or switching to buying free-range eggs for animal welfare reasons (as manadated by Islam))

Volunteers are precious
They really are, and they should be treated with respect at all times. They want to help, and it is the job of the masjid to make it easy and enjoyable for them to give that help. Specfically, masajid should ensure that volunteers :

Have a clear point of contact - and that they get a timely response.
Are asked for their views
Are given support if they have suggestions - especially if those suggestions cost nothing to implement

Leverage Wider Society
Muslims represent only a small fraction of the population - and it can be worth looking at which organisaitons in wider society can help a masjid implement actions, events and programmes. Many organisations such as Greenpeace are acutely conscious that they have a low presence in ME communities and are desperate to work together with masajid and community centres.

Co-operate with other Muslim orgs
It breaks BFTF's heart to see that, despite all the talk of wanting "unity", masajid often fail to co-operate with existing projects at other local muslim orgs but, instead, choose to set up their own project instead.

You can do more than one thing at a time
An excuse that BFTF often hears is that a Muslim organisation cannot undertake some action or other because it is not the "priority". In BFTF's experience, and assuming that the action is small and easy to do, this kind of excuse is ALMOST ALWAYS lame nonsense. We all can, and do, undertake more than one thing at a time. We spend money on groceries and still find cash to pay bills. We go to work and stilll find time for TV. And so on. And trotting out this "not a priority" excuse is even more disheartening to hear when the organisation agrees the issue is important - its just that they "can't find the time" to actually do anything about it - no matter how much help a volunteer wants to give. Please do not let your institution be one that behaves like this.

Opportunity costs and framing
Ideas and suggestions can sometimes be dismissed by masjid committees or Imams without any real achnowledgement of the consequences. One way of dealing with this is to explicity say what the opportunity costs of a particular course of action are. When framed in this way, the rejection of new ideas and suggestions often looks very unwise, and commitees may change their attitude accordingly.

For example, if a committee rejects a request for the Friday khutbah to be made in English, saying that it needs to be in Urdu for the elder (1st generation immigrant) section of the congregation, this may be countered by (accurately and truthfully) framing the argument in one of the following ways

"Many of the younger generation are already leaving the mosque because they simply cannot understand what is being said. Some of these young people are falling victim to crime and drugs, others are vulnerable to conspiracy theories, whilst some are leaving Islam altogether. Does the commitee feel that that the needs of this young generation, the future of Islam in the UK, should be sacrificed for the benefit of the elder generation?"


"An increasing section of the congregation comprises young Muslims, including converts, from many countries around the world - they have no chance of understanding Urdu, but can all understand English. Does the committee feel that these young people should be left unable to understand the Friday khutbah - or any of the announcements - just so the elder generation can continue to hear the khutbah in their preferred language"

Start Building Capacity NOW!
A problem that masajid sometimes find is that, on starting a social action project, they suddenly find that many of their teenage or young adult volunteers are unreliable or do not have the skills to participate in a group project.

So it is recommended that masajid actively look for small, well defined projects that they can give to these young volunteers so thta they get some experience of being on time, delivering on their commitments and interacting with other people. Examples of such projects might be to undertake a small survey of namazees, or to contact an organisation to challenge/praise them on some point. Aside for becoming a more effective volunteer (and indeed a more reliable person in the workplace), these activities also give the young person something to put on their CV. It really is a win-win scenario all round.

Can you be the source of a positive story?
The Muslim community badly needs positive stories about it to be publicised - it would be great if you could make such a story happen.

Six problems and partial solutions
Projects such as setting up a youth club take money, time and significant amounts of reliable peoples time. But there are many other activities that can be done at low or zero cost, take hardly any time and can have a positive effect on the Muslim and non-Muslim community. Often, these are in areas where masajid are not currently active at all. Here are six examples, in each case a quick and cheap, albeit partial, way of tackling the issue is described :

1) Problem : Rhetoric about Muslims caring for the enviroment / ethical trade but no correspoding action. Leaves youngsters with no direction on how to incorporate Islam into their daily lives. Makes Muslims look like hypocrites. Allows far right to say Muslims are cruel.
Solution : Imam and committee to commit to buying Free Range Eggs at home. Publicise in Friday Khutbah and explain why this is important. Potential good news story. Perhaps do something similar for Fairtrade chocolate and FSC/recycled paper.

2) Problem : Educational underachievment and mismatch between rhetoric of Islam's Golden Age and lack of engagement with science and technology (other than to disparage or to prove a theological point) today. Allows far right to say Muslims do not contribute to society. Leaves Muslims educationally and economically disadvantaged.
Solution: Support University Open Days, invite academics to talk to madrassa / youth club.

3) Problem : Failure to recognise "Islamic" organisations in the wider society. Allows far right to say Muslims do not want to integrate and only ever complain. Allows extreme Muslim orgs to paint British society as being completely evil and that Muslims should segregate themselves.
Solution : Mention NHS in a Friday Khutbah, ask congregation to support this institution, say how it implements many Islamic values

4) Problem : Islamophobic BNP leaflets. Portray Muslims as evil and untustworthy - disturbingly similar to 1930s Germany
Solution : Engage with Police and MP, challenge them on acceptability, publicise response, encourage community to act too.

5) Problem : Muslim community only complains, never praises. Allows far right to say Muslims do not want to integrate and only ever complain
Solution : Mention at a Friday Khutbah,explain how only complaining makes Muslims look like whingers.Get Imam to lead by example, and send letter of praise to a non-Muslim organisation for their policy/action on some specific issue. Encourgage comunity to also send positive messages

6) Problem : Prevalence of belief in false conspiracy theories amongst young people especially. Makes Muslim look foolish when they debate with wider society. Results in Muslims being apathetic and believing there is nothing they can do to help improve the situation.
Solution : Mention in a Khutbah, describing one case (e.g. moon landings) where conspiracy theory is false, and explaining how youngsters can use critical thinking to identify false conspiracy theories.

Back to those examples...
Remember those practical examples that BFTF said could be found at the foot of the post? Well, here they are (they do overlap somewhat with the "Six problems" described above) :

Org Q : How can we encourage our youth to attend and support our Masjids (Mosques)?
BFTF A: Firstly, speak English. Secondly, talk not only about the theoretical aspects of Islam - but also about how they relate to the practical lives of the community. Thirdly, give concrete examples of Islamic behaviour that YOU ARE ACTUALLY PRACTICING:

Combating Islamophobia :
The environment :
The environment :
Giving praise :
On misinformation :
On "Islamic" orgs (e.g. NHS) :
Engaging with the arts :
Challenging Muslim orgs :
Showing how activism works :
Positive Muslim Stories :

Org Q : How can we use the skills of practical dawah to support our local communities?
BFTF A : Before you get to Dawah, you need to convince the wider society that you are human. You need to combat the accusations (which have some truth in them) that the Muslim community is only interested in a narrow range of issues that affect it (e.g. halal food), that it is intolerant and that it is anti-reason and anti-science. Some practical ways of achieving this are :

Supporting Notts Uni’s:
Supporting Notts Uni's:
Interviewing researchers :
On the "common ground" :
Engaging the arts :
Not narrowly "Islamic" issues:

Update Oct 2014
Happened to send an email earlier this year so someone asking about broadening engagement at a mosque. These were the examples BFTF suggested as a starting point:
A talk about trees:

A talk about sustainability, ready to give to kids (I did this for a scout group):

The page of the 92nd Nottingham Scout Group, showing some of what they get up to:

With the strong Arab history in astronomy, you may wish to ask kids to have a bash at contributing to real research at Zooniverse:

You may wish to set up a Mums and Tots group, as Sr Saema has done in Nottingham:

Some information here on combating the defeatism that has infected our community:

And an example of how just one person can get the Daily Mail to change an inflammatory headline:

All my thoughts on how masajid can interact with the wider society condensed into one post:

With this being the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1, you may wish to look at the Muslim contribution to the UK military, here is an example from WW2:

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